Maria Callas was a force in the world of opera.
Yet in 1964, the opera sensation hadn’t performed in more than two years due to her tumultuous personal life.
With that hiatus from performing, critics were concerned that she had lost her voice. In the mid-1950s, Callas lost 80 pounds, which is what sparked the speculation.
Her comeback performance at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden in 1965 put an end to the speculation and reminded the world of her talent.
Executive producer David Horn is so taken by Callas’ life that he worked on the documentary “The Magic of Callas” as part of its Great Performances series.
It premieres at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, on New Mexico PBS.
Horn says the documentary showcases the soprano’s triumphant return to the stage for an extraordinary performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.”
Through performance footage recorded from the opera’s second act and original interviews with opera luminaries Thomas Hampson, Kristine Opolais and Rolando Villazón, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and Royal Opera House music director Antonio Pappano, the film reveals why this performance cemented Callas’ place as one of opera’s finest voices of all time.
“There had been a lot of Maria Callas documentaries, and they tend to focus on the non-performance aspect of her life,” Horn says. “It’s been an interesting journey for me. I started out as a music major. When I came to WNET in the late ’70s, I began to learn more about Callas’ life. There were so many highs and lows for this incredible woman. I didn’t really understand what it was all about until I saw why people were so intrigued by her.”
The program tells the story behind Callas’ surprise return to the opera stage after her illustrious career was said to be over and her romance with billionaire boyfriend Aristotle Onassis, instead of her vocal virtuosity, was generating headlines.
Callas wanted to show the world that the title of prima donna assoluta was still rightfully hers.
With the condition that acclaimed director Franco Zeffirelli stage the production, the legendary diva once again stepped into the difficult role of Tosca. Fans who waited outside for up to five winter nights to obtain tickets witnessed one of the most dramatic acts in opera history.
Horn says there were people on different sides of the fence when it came to Callas.
One thing was true: She was a star, he says.
“As I began to research her life and see and hear performances, I could begin to see the extent of what her artistry was,” Horn says. “I didn’t realize what a golden age it was in opera. Maria was one of a great group of opera singers.”
With a trove of material to chose from, Horn and his team had to meticulously look at the material to keep it under an hour for broadcast.
“Just being able to find the points where you can open it up and illustrate a point,” he says. “There’s a challenge to all of that. Making a documentary like this, getting the rights to all of the information is also important. When I started in the 1970s, all you had to do was get public broadcasting rights. Now you have to make sure you clear the streaming rights. It’s a puzzle you are putting together.”
Horn is a part of the “Great Performances” series on PBS, which has provided an unparalleled showcase of the best in all genres of the performing arts, serving as America’s most prestigious and enduring broadcaster of cultural programming for more than 40 years.
The series will air “The Magic of Horowitz” at 10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 22, on New Mexico PBS. The documentary tells the story of legendary pianist Vladimir Hororwitz as he made his homecoming return in April 1986 with a concert at the Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow.
The documentary weaves together concert footage, including intimate close-ups of Horowitz’s agile hands interspersed with the emotional audience reactions, historical context and original interviews with Horowitz’s former manager, Peter Gelb (Metropolitan Opera), as well as contemporary piano virtuosos Martha Argerich and Daniil Trifonov.
Recent meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev provided hope that the Cold War was coming to an end, and Horowitz’s return to Russia was seen as a way to help open the door between the two superpowers.
The concerts marked the first time in years that one of the world’s leading romantic pianists performed live onstage.
Horowitz put together a demanding program featuring works by leading classical composers Scarlatti, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Schubert, Liszt and Chopin, selected for their private meaning to him.